The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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A Day in the Life of a Bus Rider

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Want to get healthier, save money, and lower your stress? I have a simple answer for you: Ride the bus. I use the bus in Milwaukee almost every day and it has made me more active and fit, saved me thousands of dollars, and kept me out of hundreds of stressful traffic jams and endless hunts for parking. It also familiarizes me with my city and my fellow residents.

If you haven’t used public transportation much, it can seem really daunting to figure out how to make it work with your life. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say: “The bus system in my city is horrible,” only to later find out that that person has never even ridden the bus! It’s absurd but far too common for Americans to dismiss bussing altogether as a viable transit option. There is a major stigma surrounding bus ridership–that it is only for poor minorities–and that needs to end now.

I’ll be up front here: Public transportation in most cities is woefully inadequate. It serves far too few people and takes far too long to get them where they need to go. However, without riding it, we’ll never figure out ways to fix it and convince our leaders to make that happen. Systems don’t change unless they have buy-in. So today I’m going to walk you through how I use the bus on a given day to get everywhere I need to go. It isn’t perfect, but it is so much better than driving a car.

Here is what a day in my life as a public transit user looks like:

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7:30am  My alarm goes off and I shower, dress, eat cereal and make coffee. Continue reading


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The Car Conundrum

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I’ve never owned a car in my life. For the first time though, I have actually started to consider it as an option. Part of me is so committed to the car-free movement that I can’t imagine letting go of my stance, but part of me wonders about the practicality of car ownership in certain regards.

I didn’t have a car as a teenager (my parents were kind enough to let me use theirs if I needed it) or during my college years so I have been holding off on this moment for a long time, not wanting to make that big purchase or shift my lifestyle in such a drastic manner. Previously I convinced myself I didn’t want the headache of constantly hunting for a parking spot, and I didn’t want to have to think about the price of gas or allocating part of my paycheck toward car insurance. But now I’m mulling over some other factors in my mind. So, let me walk you through the line of reasoning that began to point me in the direction of car ownership. Then I’ll reveal whether I ultimately decided to go for it or not.

First, I’ll lay the scene: I live in an apartment close to several bus lines in downtown Milwaukee, a mid-size city with adequate, but not great, public transit. I take the bus to work every day. I also take the bus to various activities around town, but a lot of what I do to get places is walk. I walk to my volunteer shift at the homeless shelter nearby. I walk to the grocery store every week. I walk to the commercial strip a few blocks away for food and drinks. I walk because I enjoy it. I also walk because the exercise is beneficial, because I get to experience the city in a personal way and because walking is free.

I like this lifestyle, and so far, my schedule can afford the extra time it takes me to get places in this manner. However, there are a few factors that have been weighing on me and making me rethink my decision to own a car.

Here are the factors that are making me reconsider:

  1. Winter is fast approaching and suddenly my pleasant strolls through downtown Milwaukee look more like bundling in five layers and hunching my body against the freezing wind while I dodge ice patches. Standing at an uncovered, unheated bus stop for several minutes each day looks equally unappealing. The idea of being able to cruise toward my destination in a warm pod sounds pretty darn nice right now.
  2. As a young woman, I have had various well-intentioned people tell me it is unsafe to be out walking or waiting for the bus by myself after dark. These people want me to get a car. I think I would feel safer traveling by car instead of walking.
  3. My back hurts from carrying bags of groceries. On the one hand, having a grocery store within walking distance is an incredible blessing. On the other hand, walking home from the grocery store with bags full of food is one of my least favorite activities. I have to plan my purchases based on what weighs the least and stagger my heavier purchases in multiple trips. It’s a pain.
  4. A car might not actually be that much more expensive than my current modes of transportation. I get by on a mix of bus trips, walks and Lyft rides. My unlimited bus pass costs $64 a month and my Lyft rides (which amount to maybe 2 or 3 a week when I don’t feel like taking the bus or don’t have the time to do so for whatever reason) add up to around $80-100 a month. Surely the price of gas, insurance and even a car loan or lease would be around that, right? Especially if I split those costs with my boyfriend, who is also carless.

Modes of transport venn diagram

Well, I weighed all these significant factors. I even went back to that Venn diagram I concocted a few months back that details the advantages and disadvantages of biking, walking, driving and taking public transit. But in the end, I still came down solidly on the side of my current lifestyle, and I decided not to purchase a car at this point. Let me address each of the above issues and tell you why it still wasn’t enough to convince me to buy a car:

  1. To account for the cold factor, I had to think about my morning routine in the winter. Right now, a few minutes before I’m getting ready to leave for work, I’ll start checking the Milwaukee County Transit System “Real Time” website, and when I see that my bus is arriving in 6 or 7 minutes, I head out to the stop, wait a minute or two for my bus, then hop on it. Total time out in the cold: 6 or 7 minutes, and 5 of that is at a brisk walking pace. If I had a car, my routine would look more like this: Trudge out to my car, turn it on, start scraping snow and ice off it, start defrosting the windows, jump inside and begin driving to work. Unless I had a really top-notch heating system, I suspect it would take a solid 10 minutes or so for the car to heat up in the cold months of a Midwestern winter. Thus, my total time in the cold is around 10-15 minutes, depending on how far I had to walk to reach my car. So the verdict is: on a normal day, a car is actually the less warm option. Of course, in circumstances where I am taking the bus somewhere different and have to, say, wait for a transfer, or walk several extra blocks to a particular location because it is farther off the bus route, then the car is a warmer option. But on average, I’m not better off in a car than in a bus when it comes to weather.
  2. Now, to the question of safety. Once in a car, I am certainly safer than I would be walking outside alone. However, if I owned a car, I would still have to walk outside to and from that car multiple times a day because my apartment doesn’t have a parking lot. In my dense neighborhood, it’s not uncommon for residents to have to park several blocks away from their apartments. So, under my current circumstances, a car would not completely eliminate my time outside alone. Furthermore, in a way it creates even more of a risk for me. Currently, someone might see me as a small female, and therefore a great target for a robbery. However, if I had a car, that someone would see not only my physical features, but also my automobile asset, making me an even more desirable target. On the other end of my trips, I might be able to park closer to my destination and keep myself a little safer, but I’m still going to have to park in my neighborhood and walk home at some point. The bottom line is, I’m street smart and I do the best I can. If someone wants to rob me, then my having a car is unlikely to stop them, and may actually make them more interested in targeting me so they could get my car too.
  3. Addressing the third factor of carrying heavy groceries is not so easy. Carrying groceries is down right pain, and it would definitely go away if I had a car (for the most part). That being said, if this was such a bother to me, I could shell out $25 for one of those collapsible shopping carts and save myself thousands on a car. Case closed.
  4. Here’s the clincher: Price. Supposing I did get a car, and even supposing that I shared all related costs (loan payments, insurance and gas) with my significant other, I ultimately conclude that it’s still more expensive to make that investment. First, car loans are a rip-off. Second, having a car would not completely eliminate my need to purchase bus tickets or Lyft rides. No doubt, I would be taking the bus sometimes if my boyfriend needed the car, or taking a Lyft if I was planning on drinking that night. So, sure I might only spend a third or a quarter the amount of money on those that I currently spend, but the cost would still remain. Finally, and this is one of the most important hidden costs to consider, I have to factor in parking tickets. Milwaukee is notorious for its vicious parking cops. They will ticket you anywhere at any time for any infringement possible. So, even though parking is technically free near my apartment and by my office, I’d undoubtedly be swallowing the cost of a few parking tickets, or at least plugging parking meters, if I owned a car.

 
Finally, there’s the intangible deterrent to car ownership: stress. I like to be able to roll up to my destination and walk right in without having to factor in the unknown of hunting for a parking spot, much less paying for one. I don’t want to have to worry about whether my car door will be frozen shut on a -5 degree day, or whether it will start at all. I certainly don’t want the added stress of factoring in all these additional costs each month. In the end, this was a straightforward decision for me.

One important note: You’ll recognize that there are a few key elements that make my car-free lifestyle doable. One is the Real Time bus website. If your city doesn’t have this, you’re far more inconvenienced when it comes to taking the bus, and you could spend countless extra minutes at a stop if the bus is running late or you’re unfamiliar with the schedule. Another significant element is the availability of Lyft (or Uber, if that’s your thing). For those unfamiliar, Lyft and Uber are phone apps that allow you to request a ride from any number of certified, background-checked and highly-rated drivers in your area at pretty much any time, for a price that is often lower than cab fare. Lyft is pretty big in Milwaukee, which means that if I ever miss a bus, or feel unsafe taking a bus, or don’t have the option of a bus because it doesn’t go where I need to go, Lyft is there for me. If that was not the case, and I had to rely on rides from friends or cab rides or the bus alone, I’d be much more unwilling to undertake this car-free lifestyle. Finally, probably the single biggest factor that makes living without a car possible is my location. My apartment is close to four different bus lines, including one that takes me directly to my office in about 20 minutes. I have grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, and even hardware stores within walking distance of my house, so I never have to hop on a half-hour bus trip just to get toilet paper.

Geography is often the number one argument I hear from people defending their need to own a car. In one sense, I buy it. If your job is in a factory 10 miles south of town, surrounded by cornfields, and then you work another job right after your shift in a bar 20 miles north of that, the bus is probably not going to cut it. If you live in a suburban development that’s 25 miles from the downtown where you work and 3 miles from anything besides other houses, you’re going to feel like you need a car. My response to that is 1) jobs and living arrangements are somewhat based on choice, and 2) I know people who manage all that and still use public transit. And they don’t only exist in New York City.

I put this train of thought out there in the hopes that you’ll think through your own reasons for owning a car, besides just force of habit. Really walk through the pros and cons and the key arguments before you fritter away your time and money in an automobile.

Have you ever made the jump from owning a car to not owning a car, or vice versa? What influenced your decision?


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Interview: Christina Talks Richmond, Race and the Southern Life

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Christina Mastroianni lived on the East Coast for many years, but now she lives with her husband and children in Richmond, VA. I spoke with her about her experiences in this Southern city—a juxtaposition of beauty, history, and inequality—as well as her thoughts on a way forward that educates children equally and lifts up neighborhoods no matter who lives in them. 

Q: What’s it like to live in Richmond, VA?

A: Richmond is a beautiful city. It’s steeped in enormous amounts of history, some of which is painful. […] But I think they’re doing great things to be very frank and honest about what happened here and how it fits into our history as a nation and as a whole.

In terms of livability, the taxes are low, the cost of living is fairly low. The river, which cuts right through the city is just spectacularly beautiful and used by everyone. We swim in the river. We watch the eagles and hawks there. You can access it anywhere. It’s such a gem.

Before I moved here, I had this perception of [Richmond] being a city just lost in time. You know how people joke about how in some parts of the south, people still haven’t accepted the fact that they lost the war? Well, that’s not true here.

The one unfortunate part about Richmond is that in the ‘60s the city essentially placed all of the public housing developments in two main parts of the city, completely isolating folks from the downtown. The public transportation is abysmal; it’s not accessible, it’s not convenient. It makes it very hard for folks to get to jobs.

Recent census data shows the disparity in terms of income and race in the city. The east end of the city is where most of the people of color live. It’s the poorest part of Richmond. The western side of the city is the wealthiest and has the largest percentage of whites. We live on the east side. It’s beautiful; the east end is the historic district. But just north of us, the houses are crumbling and people are seriously poverty stricken. Our schools on the east end are horrendous compared to other parts of the city. There’s some real institutional barriers to success. Those are compounded by the fact that folks are isolated.

The east end is also one of the largest urban food deserts in the US.

Q: Is anything being done to address the food desert situation?

A: There’s some really cool stuff happening on the east end. Our councilwoman has been working with the health system, Bon Secours, and another nonprofit called Tricycle Gardens. They have established these refrigerators in many of the corner stores that sell subsidized fresh vegetables and fruit. Bon Secours also provides seed grants for businesses to start up on the east end […] We now have this blossoming commercial corridor on the east end.

Q: Do you think Richmond is a typical Southern city?

A: I recently heard on NPR that southern cities are the fastest growing in the nation. There is such a huge influx of folks from the northeast that Richmond is really creating its own identity. I don’t think that it’s a typical southern city. We have incredibly rich culture and art and music and dance in Richmond that I don’t think is typical of a southern city. But then you look at places like Atlanta and Charlotte and they too are creating their own identities. Its not until you go to the lower-tier cities that you see that old-guard, lost in the past, serious racial tension.

Q: How does Richmond compare to your previous home, Philadelphia, PA?

A: I lived in Philly for 20 years. First of all, the city of Richmond is 200,000 people. The city of Philadelphia is 1.2 million, so Philly was massive. There were parts of the city that I didn’t even know how to get to. There’s much more ethnic diversity in Philadelphia. You’d walk down the street and see Cambodians and Africans and Hispanics and Eastern Europeans. In Richmond, it’s pretty much just black and white. The ethnic diversity is, surprisingly, in the suburbs.

The other difference—it’s kind of hard to put your finger on—there was a frankness and gruffness to the people in Philadelphia. They were honest to a fault, which I loved. Some people took it to be mean or rude, but to me it was just a refreshing, frank honesty. Down here [in Richmond], there’s much more of a dance that goes on. You can’t appear to be too pushy or aggressive. You have to take that time to talk to people about their family and the weather and what’s going on. It’s almost like a courting ritual. In a way, I kind of like it because you kind of get to know people, but it’s definitely different.

Every time we go back to Philadelphia, we notice the tension. It’s dirty. The traffic is out of control. There’s very little trash in Richmond and you don’t feel like you’re being closed in on. But you don’t really realize that until you leave.

Q: Living with a biracial family, what is your experience of diversity and/or racism in Richmond?

A: We have not experienced any outright aggression. There has been some raising of the eyebrows, the second glances. You walk by some people and their mouths are open. There are definitely less biracial couples than there were in Philadelphia, but we’re seeing more and more of them. We’re definitely not the only ones.

I think the thing that we noticed more here than we did in Philadelphia—and it might just be where we lived—is the resentment around socioeconomic differences. I think that had to do with the school [my kids] were going to previously. Some enormously large percentage of students in the school system in Richmond are at or below the poverty level and predominantly black. There are two or three schools on the west end where predominately white, upper middle class families really wanted to turn the public school into the local school. They invested money and resources and enrolled their kids. They now have resources that schools on the east end couldn’t even dream of having. They are all predominantly white. Meanwhile, there were some teachers and parents at my kids’ old school that felt like “What are you doing here? This isn’t your place.” My kids were seen as the rich kids, even though we’re far from that.

Now they’re at this independent school that’s 99% white, and while they’re among their peer group in terms of academic interests and grade level performance, they’re definitely not the rich kids any more. It’s a little bittersweet to have to make that choice. The school district has got to deal with this. They’ve got to find a way to convince middle class families to invest in school. All the research shows that kids succeed in diverse socioeconomic environments.

Thanks to Christina for sharing her thoughts on Richmond, VA!


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The City That’s Best for Everyone

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I worry sometimes that urbanism, and specifically New Urbanism (if you are familiar with that movement) comes across as mostly thought-up by and crafted for wealthy young people. There are so many images of trendy warehouse lofts and pop-up jewelry stores floating around that you might get the idea that urban development is just another hipster scheme that we should file away as only applicable for those people. But let me tell you why that’s not the case.

The urbanist movement, which advocates for things like improving walkability, encouraging small business growth, and developing downtown residences aims to make life better for everyone in the city. Young, old, male, female, white, black, brown, able-bodied and disabled.

For instance, walkability is not just a buzzword tossed around by white twenty-somethings who want to be able to stroll home after a night at the craft-beer bar. No, walkability is an urban asset that benefits children, seniors, disabled people and low-income people by providing them with access to amenities around town that don’t require them to drive or pay for an automobile. The same goes for public transportation. When walking and taking the bus are more common forms of movement, that movement is no longer a commodity hoarded by the rich and the able-bodied. 

How about the urbanists advocating for new cafes and local food eateries in their neighborhood? Do these new restaurants merely provide the wealthy with one more food option to choose from on date night? I hope not. Rather, a variety of new local restaurants can meet the need for everything from quick food to celebratory meals at a wide range of price points. Better still, local restaurants provide jobs for neighborhood residents. That’s the ideal toward which urbanists are striving.

Another example of urbanist activism is parklets and sidewalk expansions (read this post for background on those). But these are not just trendy, summer hang-out spots for young people with time on their hands. Instead, they are traffic-calming mechanisms that reclaim the streets for pedestrians and decrease car accidents and deaths.

What about those repurposed warehouses that are converted into mixed-use residences and stores? In fact, many of them come with designated affordable living units in addition to market-rate apartments. A condo building with residences on the top floors and businesses on the bottom floors can also create opportunity to live and work in close proximity, and it makes room for new businesses to flourish.

I think the best city for everyone is a city where each resident accomplishes what he or she needs to accomplish—whether that’s getting groceries, going to work or attending school—and feels at home in that environment—whether it’s an apartment, public housing, a senior center or a single-family house. The best city for everyone is also a city where all who wish to can afford to live—not necessarily in the biggest, fanciest home, but at least in a comfortable, safe abode. Urbanist ideas are furthering all these goals. You only need to look past the hipster façade in order to recognize the powerful transformations that are happening for all residents in cities across the country.

Here’s another fantastic article by The Black Urbanist responding to similar criticisms of the new urbanist movement.


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The Way You Move

Modes of transport venn diagram

How do our modes of transportation effect the way we experience our cities? I put together this little chart looking at the different factors we usually consider when traveling by car vs. bike vs. foot vs. bus or train. (Let me know if you think I left anything off or if you disagree with any of the points.)

It helps to see overlaps in the concerns of transportation users because we can utilize these commonalities to share ideas and build power. For instance, a significant consideration for bikers and walkers, which does not matter much to drivers or public transit riders, is the safety of their route. That’s “safety” as in bike lanes and sidewalks, not criminal presence. When you’re in a car, you rule the road, but when you’re using one of the other forms of transit that our cities and towns have so frequently declined to prioritize, you have to think about how safe your route is before you head out. Some routes are so treacherous as to prohibit a person from using a bike or their feet to travel there. So, when I understand that safety matters for both bikers and walkers, I start envisioning sidewalks and paths built alongside one another that protect everyone who uses them. Then, as projects are proposed to create bike lanes and wider sidewalks, I know who would benefit from them and whose opinions should be present in decision making.

Similarly, knowing that a big concern for drivers is the availability of parking spaces and that a big concern for bikers is the availability of secure locking locations, I begin to wonder whether an increase in the latter could help increase the former too; by alleviating an obstacle that may prevent people from biking, we can encourage biking over driving, and leave more parking spots open for people who truly have no other option than to use a car. Besides, bikes take up far less space than cars, so it would be relatively simple to designate a small plot of land for a shed that could then hold dozens of bikes.

Even the weather, which seems to be a largely immoveable force, can be mediated for public transit users with heated and/or covered waiting areas. This also creates an alternative for walkers who, instead of deciding to drive on a day in which rain is forecasted, can continue walking to work as usual, but have the option of ducking into a shelter and taking the bus if it suddenly starts to rain.

What I’m getting at here is that understanding the concerns of different transport users does not just help us to work for their individual and overlapping benefits, it also helps us to encourage their participation in new modes of transit. Once we determine which factors turn people away from, say, taking the bus to work instead of driving, we can work to mitigate those factors by creating more direct bus routes or building a more affordable pricing structure for bus passes. Then, with the right research and packaging, we would hope to induce further public transport use. Of course there are dozens of steps involved in this process, but it’s an example of how an awareness of transportation needs and concerns can advise our development and use of transportation infrastructure. Consider this chart a jumping off point to take a look at the transportation needs and concerns in your own community.

As a final word, transit gets a fair amount of play in this space, but many urbanist blogs focus far more on the tough and vital issues that are related to this integral element of our cities. If this transportation post piqued your interest, consider it your invitation to explore those blogs further. Check out Streets.MN and Streetsblog for starters.


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Skills I’ve Learned in New York City (and a few areas for improvement)

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I’ve been in this wild city for six months now. It’s had its ups and downs but one thing is certain: New York City has taught me bucket-loads about urban landscapes and my place within them. Today, I’m sharing a handful of skills I’ve developed during my time here, plus a few things I could stand to improve on:

What I’ve Learned

  1. Moves like lightning— I think there was a time in my life when friends would accuse me of being a slow walker, but not any more! In New York City, you snooze you lose, so you better believe I am speedwalking down those streets and running up the steps from the subway platform. (I get my fair share of actual running done in Central Park too.) The New York style of movement is about more than just speed though, it also demands limberness and careful maneuvering. You have to be ready to dodge that pack of tourists, sneak around that man dawdling with his shopping bag and get to the door in time to help that woman pushing a stroller—all in a manner of seconds. I’m glad I’ve honed this skill because I use it every day.
  2. Spotting the un-crowded places—In a city of 8.3 million people, open space should be cherished above most other things. Thus, I am developing a knack for spotting those places with a little more room in them: libraries, cafes (like the one I’m sitting in right now), museums and even calm neighborhoods where one can wander freely, undisturbed. I’m always looking to add to my list of uncrowded places, too. Let me know if you have ideas (but keep your voice to a low whisper. We can’t let too many people in on the secrets).
  3. Cultural awareness—Back in the Midwest last week, I realized I might be starting to take New York’s diversity for granted. I stepped into a lounge bar in an old warehouse in Wisconsin and the first thing that hit me was not the music or the décor but the enormous amount of white people—more than I’ve seen in one room in months. It’s not that I don’t notice race and class in New York. Quite the contrary: I notice it every day, everywhere I go. But the diversity around me—racial, economic, ethnic, and religious—is beginning to feel normal. Like why on earth would I not hear five different languages on the bus on my way to work? It’s a joy to be exposed to such varied lives and to have my privilege questioned on a daily basis in such an in-your-face way. I won’t get it like this anywhere else so I’m learning from it as much as I can.
  4. Dressing for all occasions—Let’s start with the feet. Life in New York requires  a considerable amount of walking (see #1) so you always need a pair of trusty, walkable shoes on hand. And yet, New Yorkers also spend time at the office and out to dinner and at other venues which require nice-looking shoes. Here, preparation for any occasion is key. Moving upwards, you’ve got to have the right clothing to keep you warm outside in the winter, cool on the subway platform in the summer, and dry during a thunderstorm. You can’t just stash a rain jacket in your car; you have to carry everything with you. This I have learned, but not without a fair amount of mistakes along the way.
  5. Sucking it up and opening my wallet—This is one thing I wish I didn’t have to do, but sometimes it’s unavoidable that I’m running to an event after work and I know that with subway travel I probably won’t get home till 10pm. On these evenings, it’s inevitable that I’ll be eating out instead of cooking for myself more affordably at home. I keep a mental list of cheap spots near my office and other frequent destinations. However, eating out more has definitely been a mindset shift and I have to compensate for that budgeting in other realms of my life.
  6. Finding friends in surprising places—When I came here, I thought I wouldn’t know anyone, but that turned out to be wrong. Quite a few people end up in New York City and I am blessed to have rediscovered several friendships from past periods of my life because those people are in New York suddenly too. In addition, I’ve opened myself up to meeting new people through friends, coworkers and roommates. When you’re surrounded by millions of people, you’ve got a pretty high chance of finding some good eggs among them.
  7. All the other stuff—Naturally I’m learning more than just what clothes to wear and how to walk in New York City. There’s personal growth, career experience, spiritual exploration and all the other juicy things one would hope to encounter in a new place and new phase of life. But I’m not ready to speak on all that just yet.

Areas for Improvement

  1. An ear to the ground—Within my wonderful network of friends, several are long-time New Yorkers with a serious awareness of what’s going on in the city, and others are just naturally in the know. If I tag along with them, I get to enjoy underground concerts, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and secret neighborhoods that I would never have discovered on my own. I’d love to be able to find these myself though, so that I can pass on the knowledge to future newcomers and visitors.
  2. If only I could walk in heels…this would solve the whole “carry nice shoes and wear walkable ones” situation. Alas, I possess zero skill in this arena.
  3. Deep breaths—Patience is not my strong suit and in this fast-paced city, I could stand to cultivate a bit more of it. I need deep breaths for those moments when I’m stuck behind a crowd of people or when public transit fails or when this place doesn’t quite feel like home.

So there you have it: seven lessons learned, three areas for improvement. Maybe we’ll revisit this when my service year is over in August. For now, Happy Monday!

Photo taken in Sunnyside Queens


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Song About Cities: Public Transit Tunes

A while back, I posted a collection of five top-notch songs about a city. That time it was Chicago. This time, to brighten your Friday, I’m offering some of my favorite tunes about riding the bus or the train.

  1. On the topic of public transit, there is perhaps no more fitting tune than “Joe Metro” by the Seattle-based hip-hop group, Blue Scholars.
  2. Back Up Train” by Al Green
  3. School Bus Driver” by a hometown favorite, Trampled by Turtles
  4. The Train Pt. 2 (Sir Lucious Leftfoot Saves the Day)” by Big Boi. And if that title doesn’t make you want to listen, then I don’t know what will. 
  5. Trains & Buses” by Frank Hamilton 


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Roadblocks to Progress: Summer Construction and Small Business Struggles

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Penn Ave and 53rd St, a couple blocks from my house

A few years ago, I was introduced to a daunting conflict between small business and government. My friend Harry brought me to a Caribbean café in St. Paul, Minnesota, located off a central corridor (University Avenue) that was undergoing major renovations to become a light-rail line. As you know from previous posts, I’m a strong supporter of public transit, especially in my own city. However, what I found out that evening at Caribe Caribbean Bistro made me rethink my enthusiasm. The thirty-seat restaurant had seen a serious downturn in business since construction began on their portion of University Avenue. Speaking with one of the owners, my friend and I learned that the lack of access and parking was turning away numerous customers away, and that they didn’t think Caribe could survive this indefinite spell of isolation.

Harry, who worked for the University Avenue Business Association, offered the owner a small business loan to potentially tide them over, but even this was not enough. The owners also attempted a Kickstarter campaign to help them relocate their business (a campaign which I supported). However, they were unable to obtain the necessary funding for that. My plans to return to the café a few months later were never realized because it had to close down. Continue reading


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Public Transit Trends: What a Bus Ride Can Tell You About Race and Class

Two weeks ago, I started a discussion about the relationship between cities and public transit. I outlined the different public transportation models that I’ve seen broadly employed in big cities, sprawling cities, mid-size cities and small towns, but now I want to go more in depth to talk about two intersecting issues that effect public transit across the nation: race and class.
from thesource.metro.net

from thesource.metro.net

Riding the bus is one of the best ways to understand race and class differentials in a given city or town. By watching who gets on which routes, at which places, and at what times of the day, you can begin to notice the demographic make-up of your city. This information tells you what sort of jobs people have (night-shifts, office jobs, etc.) as well as what neighborhoods they live and work in, and how segregated those areas are. But public transit doesn’t just demonstrate how our cities are divided by race and class, it can also create those divisions.

Two Examples

I know I mention these cities a fair amount on The City Space, but New York City and Washington DC offer excellent fodder for an examination of the relationship between public transit, race and class. While I’m not a transportation expert by any means, I feel comfortable speaking about public transit in these places because I’ve used it a lot, and the corresponding issues seem to come up frequently in discussions with friends. Stick with me on this example—it’ll make sense in the end.

Let’s start with New York City. Here, the subway costs $2.50 no matter where you’re going. $2.50 buys a trip from the Far Rockaways to the heart of Manhattan, lending a certain equality to the daily commute. $2.50 also buys a homeless person a warm place to sleep on a cold winter day. In New York, everyone from grandmas to babies in strollers, from politicians to actresses, takes the train. $2.50 is by no means a bargain, but it can take anyone almost anywhere in the city. Continue reading


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Public Transit Trends: From Cities to Towns

With numerous recent articles commenting on my generation’s decreasing use of the automobile, it’s time I started a discussion here about the relationship between cities and transit. Having never owned a car myself, I’ve often relied on public transit to get me where I need to go in a number of cities. Thus, from both a personal and an urbanist standpoint I know how important it is. In this first post in the transit series, I’ll outline the different transportation models that I’ve broadly seen employed everywhere from major metro areas to small towns.

IMG_0164 Big Cities
New York City and Washington DC provide some of the most expansive public transit systems in the nation and they are usually pointed to as examples of top-notch public transit. (Chicago is also a notable example of quality transit.) These cities’ transportation systems serve millions of residents a day, taking them to the office, the supermarket, the theater, the park and everywhere in between with relative speed and ease. The webs of their bus and subway lines reach the corners of the city (though both, notably, exclude certain neighborhoods like Red Hook in Brooklyn and Georgetown in DC). Public transit in these metropolitan areas may not be cheap, but it is the quickest method of movement in traffic-logged cities that cost a fortune to park in. In New York and DC, it is completely reasonable not to own a car and if the need arises for an out of town trip or an IKEA buy, one can grab a ZipCar for the weekend. Class differentials seriously effect access to such resources and I’ll speak more about that in a future post.

Mid-size Cities
Mid-size cities are a vastly mixed bag when it comes to public transportation. Some, like Philadelphia, have gone all in with a commitment to maximum accessibility and frequency. Others, like Atlanta hardly try. Still others—Milwaukee, WI for example— have a transit system that quietly links thousands of residents to the surrounding area while whizzing through, unnoticed, by its wealthier, car-bound citizens. I won’t deny that having a car in my mid-size hometown of Minneapolis makes transportation a lot quicker—with the exception of rush-hour wherein a designated highway lane makes commuting on the bus a relative breeze. Ultimately, quality public transit is entirely achievable in these sorts of places if governments and people want to make it happen.

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